Sunday, August 02, 2009

The dead music of living composers

Just returned from the SOSL Young Performers concert and the opening piece, something by a local girl aged 22, set off a train of thought. It was quite a pleasant little overture but nothing particularly memorable about it.

This is the fundamental issue that I have with modern Classical (or 'Serious') music: the lack of melody. Melody was abandoned as being unnecessary somewhere in the early twentieth century and was replaced by the modern "musical idea" which is (s far as I can tell) a random collection of notes. It is quite possible to construct symphonies, sonatas and even operas on the basis of these musical ideas and this is precisely what the successors to the classical tradition went on to do. Not surprisingly, the resultant 'music' is quite incomprehensible to the average listener. It is not listened to, although endured occasionally in concerts while waiting for other, more approachable pieces to be played.

We are now almost at the close of the opening decade of the twenty-first century and looking back to the last century, can we name the great composers of the previous century? A handful of names comes to mind : Prokofiev, Britten, Strauss, Rachmaninov and others of their age, almost none from the second half of the century.

What of Glass, Stockhausen, Antheil, McCabe or Lloyd? Most would hardly have heard of them, and those that do, would probably recall any encounter with their music with a shudder.

The criticism of the lack of melody is not new, Thomas Beecham regularly railed against it, famously noting that if an opera cannot be played by an organ grinder, it's not going to achieve immortality. He also suggested that composers should write tunes that chauffeurs and errand boys can whistle.

The musical establishment chose to ignore the advice and pursue its sterile experiments in music minus melody with the result that modern music has lost its audience completely. It survives as an academic exercise, with learned professors, fellow composers and other musicians weighing in on its merits and demerits while the public continues to clamour for the music of the Old Masters; the still-living music of long dead composers while conspicuously ignoring the dead music of their living peers.